Fr Anthony Nzubechukwu Ibegbunam

At a difficult time in the Church’s history, Pope Pius IX, wishing to place her (the Church) under the powerful patronage of the holy patriarch Joseph, declared him “Patron of the Catholic Church.” with the Decree Quemadmodum Deus of December 8, 1870. For Pius IX this was a very important gesture, since by virtue of the sublime dignity which God has granted to his most faithful servant Joseph, “the Church has always most highly honored and praised blessed Joseph next to his spouse, the Virgin Mother of God, and has besought his intercession in times of trouble.” (Sacred Congregation of Rites, Decree Quemadmodum Deus, (December 8, 1870)

What are the reasons for such great confidence in St Joseph? Why did Blessed Pope Pius IX proclaim St Joseph patron of the Universal Catholic Church? Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical, On Devotion to St. Joseph, Quamquam Pluries of 15 August, 1889explained it in this way: “The special reasons for which St. Joseph has been proclaimed Patron of the Church, and from which the Church looks for singular benefit from his patronage and protection, are that Joseph was the husband of Mary and the reputed (presumed) Father of Jesus Christ. From these sources have sprung his dignity, his holiness, his glory. In truth, the dignity of the Mother of God is so lofty that nothing created can rank above it. But as Joseph has been united to the Blessed Virgin by the ties of marriage, it may not be doubted that he approached nearer than any to the eminent dignity by which the Mother of God surpasses so nobly all created natures…. Joseph was in his day the lawful and natural guardian, head and defender of the Holy Family…. It is thus fitting and most worthy of Joseph’s dignity that, in the same way that he once kept unceasing holy watch over the family of Nazareth, so now does he protect and defend with his heavenly patronage the Church of Christ” (Leo XIII, Encyclical, Quamquam pluries, Vatican, 15 August, 1889, no 3).

On the occasion of the centenary of Pope Leo XIII’s Encyclical Epistle Quamquam Pluries, and in line with the veneration given to St. Joseph over the centuries,  St John Paul II wrote Redemptoris Custos, (Guardian of the Redeemer) an Apostolic Exhortation on the person and mission of Saint Joseph  in the life of Christ and of the Church on 15 August, 1989; “so that all may grow in devotion to the Patron of the Universal Church and in love for the Savior whom he served in such an exemplary manner. In this way the whole Christian people not only will turn to St. Joseph with greater fervor and invoke his patronage with trust, but also will always keep before their eyes his humble, mature way of serving and of “taking part” in the plan of salvation.” (John Paul II, Redemptoris Custos, Apostolic Exhortation on the person and mission of Saint Joseph  in the life of Christ and of the Church, Rome 15 August, 1989, no 1)

With the Apostolic Letter Patris Corde (With a Father’s Heart), Pope Francis recalls the 150th anniversary of the declaration of St Joseph as Patron of the Universal Church by Blessed Pope Pius IX on 8 December 1870.  To mark this anniversary and “in order to perpetuate the entrustment of the whole Church to the powerful patronage” of St Joseph, the Guardian of Jesus, Pope Francis proclaimed a “Year of Saint Joseph” to be celebrated from 8 December 2020 to 8 December 2021 “in which all faithful, after his example, may daily reinforce their own life of faith in complete fulfilment of God’s will” (Decree of the Apostolic Penitentiary for the Year of St Joseph, December 8, 2020).We are in the year of St Joseph.


“Joseph, Son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:20-21). In these words, we find the core of biblical truth about St. Joseph; they refer to that moment in his life to which the Fathers of the Church make special reference. (John Paul II, Redemptoris Custos, no 2)….  “When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took Mary as his wife” (cf. Mt 1:24). He took her in all the mystery of her motherhood. He took her together with the Son who had come into the world by the power of the Holy Spirit. In this way he showed a readiness of will like Mary’s with regard to what God asked of him through the angel.  (John Paul II, Redemptoris Custos, no 2). “Throughout all of history, Joseph is the man who gives God the greatest display of trust, even in the face of such astonishing news. (Benedict XVI, Homily, Yaoundé Cameroon, 19 March, 2009)

“Matthew and Luke, the two Evangelists who speak most of Joseph, tell us very little, yet enough for us to appreciate what sort of father (man) he was, and the mission entrusted to him by God’s providence. “We know that Joseph was a lowly carpenter (cf. Mt 13:55), betrothed to Mary (cf. Mt 1:18; Lk 1:27). He was a “just man” (Mt 1:19), ever ready to carry out God’s will as revealed to him in the Law (cf. Lk 2:22.27.39) and through four dreams (cf. Mt 1:20; 2:13.19.22). After a long and tiring journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, he beheld the birth of the Messiah in a stable, since “there was no place for them” elsewhere (cf. Lk 2:7). He witnessed the adoration of the shepherds (cf. Lk 2:8-20) and the Magi (cf. Mt 2:1-12), who represented respectively the people of Israel and the pagan peoples.” (Francis, Patris Corde, (With a Father’s Heart) Apostolic Letter on the 150th Anniversary of the Proclamation of Saint Joseph as Patron of the Universal Church, Rome, 8 December, 2020)

According to Pope Francis, “after Mary, the Mother of God, no saint is mentioned more frequently in the papal magisterium than Joseph, her spouse” (ibid). Different Popes reflected on the message contained in the limited information handed down by the Gospels in order to appreciate more fully his central role in the history of salvation. Blessed Pius IX declared him “Patron of the Catholic Church”, (Quemadmodum Deus (8 December 1870). Venerable Pius XII, on 1 May 1955 instituted the Feast of St Joseph the Worker and proposed him as Patron of Workers, “with the intent that the dignity of work be recognized by all, and that it inspires social life and laws, based on the fair distribution of rights and duties” (Pius XII, Address on the occasion of the Solemnity of Saint Joseph the Worker, 1 May 1955). St John Paul II described him as “Guardian of the Redeemer”. (Apostolic Exhortation Redemptoris Custos (15 August 1989). St Joseph is universally invoked as the “patron of a happy death” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1014).


“As can be deduced from the gospel texts, Joseph’s marriage to Mary is the juridical basis of his fatherhood. It was to assure fatherly protection for Jesus that God chose Joseph to be Mary’s spouse. It follows that Joseph’s fatherhood – a relationship that places him as close as possible to Christ, to whom every election and predestination is ordered (cf. Rom 8:28-29) – comes to pass through marriage to Mary, that is, through the family.  While clearly affirming that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and that virginity remained intact in the marriage (cf. Mt 1:18-25; Lk 1:26-38), the evangelists refer to Joseph as Mary’s husband and to Mary as his wife (cf. Mt 1:16, 18-20, 24; Lk 1:27; 2:5). (John Paul II, Redemptoris Custos, no 7)

According to St Augustine, “Scripture recognizes that Jesus is not born of Joseph’s seed, since in his concern about the origin of Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph is told that it is of the Holy Spirit. Nonetheless, he is not deprived of his fatherly authority from the moment that he is told to name the child. Finally, even the Virgin Mary, well aware that she has not conceived Christ as a result of conjugal relations with Joseph, still calls him Christ’s father.” (St. Augustine, Sermo 51, 10, 16: PL 38, 342.) “When his parents saw him, they were astonished, and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” (Luke 2:48)

The greatness of Saint Joseph is that he was the spouse of Mary and the foster father of Jesus. In this way, he placed himself, in the words of St John Chrysostom, “at the service of the entire plan of salvation”.

St Paul VI pointed out that Joseph concretely expressed his fatherhood  “in having made his life a service, a sacrifice to the mystery of the Incarnation and to the redemptive mission connected with it; in having used the legal authority which was his over the Holy Family in order to make a total gift of self, of his life and work; in having turned his human vocation to domestic love into a superhuman oblation of self, an oblation of his heart and all his abilities into love placed at the service of the Messiah growing up in his house.” (Paul VI, Homily, Rome, 19 March 1966)

Pope Francis described St Joseph as a beloved father, a tender and loving father, an obedient father, an accepting father, a creatively courageous father, a working father and a father in the shadows (Francis, Patris Corde, nos 1-7).


St Joseph was called by God to serve the person and mission of Jesus directly through the exercise of his fatherhood. It is precisely in this way that, as the Church’s Liturgy teaches, he “cooperated in the fullness of time in the great mystery of salvation” and is truly a “minister of salvation.” (John Paul II, Redemptoris Custos, no 8). Mary is the Lord’s humble servant, prepared from eternity for the task of being the Mother of God. Joseph is the one whom God chose to be the “overseer of the Lord’s birth,” the one who has the responsibility to look after the Son of God’s “ordained” entry into the world, in accordance with divine dispositions and human laws. All of the so-called “private” or “hidden” life of Jesus is entrusted to Joseph’s guardianship (ibid).

We will now see the different roles, St Joseph played in the history of salvation.


Journeying from Galilee to Bethlehem for the census in obedience to the orders of legitimate authority (Emperor Caesar Augustus) (Luke 2: 4), Joseph fulfilled for the child the significant task of officially inserting the name “Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth” (cf. Jn 1:45) in the registry of the Roman Empire. This registration clearly shows that Jesus belongs to the human race as a man among men, a citizen of this world, subject to laws and civil institutions, but also “savior of the world.” (John Paul II, Redemptoris Custos, no 9)


As guardian of the mystery “hidden for ages in the mind of God,” which begins to unfold before his eyes “in the fullness of time,” Joseph, together with Mary, is a privileged witness to the birth of the Son of God into the world on Christmas night in Bethlehem. Luke writes: “And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Lk 2:6-7).  (ibid., no 10)


Joseph also witnessed the adoration of the shepherds who arrived at Jesus’ birthplace after the angel had brought them the great and happy news (cf. Lk 2:15- 16) . Later he also witnessed the homage of the magi who came from the East (cf. Mt 2:11)  (ibid).


A son’s circumcision was the first religious obligation of a father, and with this ceremony (cf. Lk 2:21) Joseph exercised his right and duty as father with regard to Jesus. (ibid, no 11)


At the circumcision Joseph names the child, “Jesus.” This is the only name in which there is salvation (cf. Acts 4:12). Its significance had been revealed to Joseph at the moment of his “annunciation”: “You shall call the child Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (cf. Mt 1:21). In conferring the name, Joseph declares his own legal fatherhood over Jesus, and in speaking the name he proclaims the child’s mission as Saviour (ibid, no 12).


This rite, to which Luke refers (2:22ff.), includes the ransom of the first-born and sheds light on the subsequent stay of Jesus in the Temple at the age of twelve. The ransoming of the first-born is another obligation of the father, and it is fulfilled by Joseph.  (ibid, no 13)


In Matthew 2: 13 we read: “Now when [the magi] had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him'” (Mt 2:13). And so, Joseph, having been warned in a dream, “took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt have I called my son’ ” (Mt 2:14-15; cf. Hos 11:1).

To be continued in next edition

Fr Anthony Ibegbunam is a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Nnewi


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